BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Melting glaciers in the Andes.
Coral bleaching in the Caribbean Sea.
Extreme rains in Colombia and in the basin of the Grijalva and Usumacinta rivers, shared by Guatemala and Mexico.
They are all evidence of the impact climate change is having on Latin America and the Caribbean.
A group of researchers from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), sought to quantify the economic impact caused by climate change in the region.
The final report, titled “The Climate and Development Challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean: Options for Climate Resilient Low Carbon Development,” shows that a temperature increase of 2°C relative to the levels seen prior to the industrial revolution could have an annual economic impact of about US$100 billion by 2050.
The study shows the biggest losses will come from the decline in agricultural exports, rising sea levels, reduced hydropower production in Brazil, coral bleaching and the loss of biomass in the Amazon rainforest.
The multibillion-dollar figure does not include the loss of biodiversity in the region, which covers six of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of flora and fauna: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Mexico.
Meanwhile, glaciers melting in the Andes could affect the water supply reaching cities and agricultural operations, among other impacts.
In Chile, 70% of the water supplied to the population comes from glaciers, according to a study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
“The tropical glaciers of the Andes are melting at a speed that may compromise glaciers located less than 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) above sea level in the next 20 years,” says Walter Vergara, the head of the Climate Change and Sustainability Division at the IDB and leader of the study. “Over the last two decades, approximately 25% of these glaciers have disappeared.”
The resulting rise in sea levels could threaten mangroves, compromising the birthplace of a variety of species in countries such as Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia.
In addition, the phenomenon would damage roads, ports and housing, according to the IDB.
The United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) has calculated that Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 27% of the 3,351 cities located less than 10 meters (32.8 feet) above sea level.
In the Caribbean region alone, a one-meter rise in sea level would cost US$68.2 billion by 2080 – equivalent to 8.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) for the period – due to the costs of rebuilding infrastructure, relocation and the loss of territory, according to the report titled “Turn Down the Heat,” published by the World Bank in November.
Climate change is expected to provoke changes in soil characteristics and precipitation levels, affecting the cultivation of wheat and oilseeds, such as soybeans, Vergara says.
Annual losses in the region’s exports are expected to reach between US$32 billion to US$54 billion by 2050, according to the IDB.
Vergara said the impact on the Amazon region is the most important consequence of climate changes in South America.
Known in the international scientific community as the Amazon dieback, the loss of Amazon biomass as a result of climate change could result in a reduction of water for agriculture.
“If the Amazon dieback happens, and there is evidence that it is already happening, the quantity of the water that the forest injects into the atmosphere would be impacted, which could affect agriculture in southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Uruguay,” Vergara says. “The impact on the Amazon basin will have local, regional and global consequences.”
Vulnerability of the region
Climate change will cause a significant impact on the region because its consequences are in addition to other effects from human activities.
“Deforestation, pollution and urban expansion also represent a major threat to the quality of life in Latin America,” says Rodney Martínez, the director of the International Research Center on El Niño (CIIFEN), which is located in Ecuador.
Vulnerability to these impacts does not depend solely on geographical factors.
“The major challenges that make the region so vulnerable are related to governance, social and economic factors, such as poverty levels and the region’s dependence on natural resources,” Martínez says.
The World Bank reports that 149 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean live on less than US$4 per day.
“Poverty and inequality, which are persistent problems in the region despite its economic growth, may be aggravated by the impacts from climate change,” says Mayté González, a consultant for the Regional Gateway for Technology Transfer and Climate Change Action in Latin America and the Caribbean (REGATTA), located in Panama.
REGATTA, which is sponsored by UNEP with financial support from the governments of Spain, Norway and Sweden, has mapped 250 institutions that do work related to the issue of climate change in the region.
In November, the “Cities and Climate Change” congress took place in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá, bringing together delegations from countries in the region to discuss possibilities for a low-carbon economy, with a focus on urban centers.
At the event, 16 cities joined the 285 that already have signed the Global Cities Covenant on Climate.
The signatories committed to reaching goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Right now, the focus should be on scientific contributions and on financing and establishing networks so that local responses can be carried out to benefit communities,” Martínez says.
Latin America and the Caribbean will also receive outside help. On Dec. 4, for example, the British government announced a £15 million (US$24.3 million) aid package through 2015 to promote sustainable agriculture in Colombia.
“Many countries in the region, which don’t emit high levels of greenhouse gases and are vulnerable to their impacts should receive multilateral and bilateral funding and cooperation,” González says.